Dreaming “In the Heights”: From Broadway to the Big (and Little) Screen

It’s hard to watch In the Heights during a widespread record-breaking heatwave. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because, spoiler alert: there’s a heatwave in the Heights. It took me three tries to finish because of the actual power outages in my town, but In the Heights was worth the effort. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s debut Broadway musical turned film follows an ensemble cast as they run toward or, in some cases, away from their dreams or “sueñitos.”

Usnavi, the protagonist, dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic of his boyhood memories; Vanessa, his longtime crush, dreams of moving up from Washington Heights and out of nail salons into fashion design; Nina returns home from her dreams of Stanford, crushed by reality; and Nina’s father dreams of Nina’s potential beyond the barrio. The neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia, observes, comforts, and advises all: “Paciencia y fe” (patience and faith). But patience comes hard when it’s announced that someone in the neighborhood has the $96,000 winning lotto ticket – whose dreams are about to come true? Also, as Abuela Claudia foreshadows, sometimes it’s a mixed blessing: “what do you do / when your dreams come true?”

The musical numbers are alternately fun and moving, but sizzle when Miranda’s signature hip-hop drives the narrative. Anthony Ramos as Usnavi spits mad rhymes and steals every song despite the beautiful vocalists and accompaniment. In “Carnaval Del Barrio” he rocks the lines “Can we sing so loud and raucous / They can hear us across the bridge in East Secaucus?” Miranda wisely stepped aside as the original Broadway performer and let Ramos shine (but look for the bearded charmer as El Piraguero – he may have a bright future). Unfortunately, none of the ladies get a rap number, but Olga Merediz and Daphne Rubin-Vega threaten to steal the show with their respective work on “Pacienca y Fe” and “Carnaval Del Barrio.” The young actors display musical and comedic talents, especially Ramos, but the veteran actors’ nuanced performances ground the story in bittersweetness. Jimmy Smits lends veritas as a father who sacrifices for his daughter to have better, do better, and be better than him.  

The film attempts some animation effects that fall flat – the choreography and musical set pieces work best when using the urban settings and props in practical ways. The dancing wigs during “No Me Diga” come to mind and the synchronized swimmers in “96,000.” The best CGI special effect happens during a lovers’ ballad on the apartment building overlooking the Washington Heights Bridge (beware if you suffer from vertigo). The choreography in the film ranges from ballet to modern to salsa to synchronized swimming, but the best dance sequence occurs “spontaneously” during “Carnaval Del Barrio” when the neighborhood defies the heat and chooses dance. The performers really sold that they were enjoying each other, the moment, and the magic of their community.

In the Heights is a fun, light-hearted romp, which isn’t necessarily a good thing based on the topics it attacks (or attempts to) – racism, DACA, sexism, and class issues abound. The female characters have their own stories but those arcs are unnecessarily tied to romantic male partners. The flash forward storytelling also drags at times and spoils one of the character’s endings.  However, I can recommend this film if you watch it for fun and not for any hefty political debate or resolution. Lead Anthony Ramos is worth every cent of production cost: his smile swallows his face and his voice carries the film to its end. But watch it with friends, a frosty beverage, and room for dancing, because there ain’t no party like a party In the Heights, where the endings might come seasoned with different kinds of happy than the residents ever dreamed.

Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay By: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Based on the Musical of the same name by: Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Music By: Miranda, Bill Sherman, and Alex Lacamore
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vegas, Gregory Diaz IV, and Jimmy Smits